The puck drops on the start of the ninth KHL season when last year’s champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk starts its defence of the title against runner-up CSKA Moscow on Monday. Here’s a rundown of five factors to watch for in the coming months.
The Znarok effect
This summer’s big news was the return of Oleg Znarok to the KHL, taking the helm at SKA St. Petersburg. He’s continuing to lead the Russian national team as well, forcing him to miss almost a month around September’s World Cup of Hockey in Toronto, but the appointment seems set to reinforce SKA’s status as the basis of the national team.
In May, the team from Russia’s Northern Capital provided seven members of the World Championship roster; since then Znarok has brought Pavel Datsyuk, Viktor Tikhonov, Sergei Plotnikov and youngster Nikolai Prokhorkin to Petersburg, all of whom are likely to be involved in the national set-up, while Ilya Kovalchuk is apparently back in the fold after being a healthy scratch in last year’s playoffs.
Znarok, who rates his SKA roster as the most powerful he’s worked with, is one of the most successful coaches in KHL history – but how will he fare while juggling the notoriously high demands of club and country this season?
Ready for the record
Metallurg Magnitogorsk is going for its third title in four years but before that star forward Sergei Mozyakin is poised to set a potentially unbeatable record. Mozyakin currently has 424 goals in top-flight Russian hockey, just four shy of Boris Mikhailov’s all-time record.
Unusually for a top Russian player in the modern era, Mozyakin has barely played in North America – a brief stint in youth hockey in Canada ended after just four games due to a contract dispute back home. That has given him the time to amass his impressive tally in the Superliga and KHL, while the steady Trans-Atlantic traffic of the modern game makes it unlikely that future Russian snipers will play enough hockey in their homeland to get close to that mark.
Beijing’s Kunlun Red Star is the first Chinese team to play in one of hockey’s big leagues. The newly-formed club has recruited a blend of experienced KHL players, including Gagarin Cup winner Janne Jalasvaara, and promising Chinese talent led by Rudi Ying. Seasoned with some international talent such as French international forward Damien Fleury.
Head coach Vladimir Yurzinov Jr has seen his multi-national crew pick up some decent results in pre-season and there are hopes for a bright start when Kunlun plays its first competitive game on 1st September at Far-East rival Amur Khabarovsk. But the new club’s warm welcome overheated in one warm-up game: a clash with Barys in Astana ended after just three minutes as the Chinese team refused to play on following a series of fights instigated by Damir Ryspayev. The Barys defenceman has since been handed a lifetime ban from the KHL.
Russian hockey was shocked last season when veteran coach Fyodor Kanareikin, Soviet champion as a player with Spartak and Russian champion as head coach of Metallurg Magnitogorsk, was diagnosed with cancer.
Happily he responded well to treatment – so well that he was back on the ice in a veterans’ game earlier this summer. But it was still a huge surprise when he was unveiled as head coach of Avangard Omsk barely a week before the season began. The club, which announced days earlier that it had concluded its summer transfer activity and was happy with its roster, explained that Yevgeni Kornoukhov was replaced in favour of a more experienced coach who could ‘meet the exacting demands placed on the team’. Kanareikin took over part way through a pre-season tournament in Magnitogorsk and duly lifted the Romazan Memorial Trophy after back-to-back wins over the host.
The Army Men of CSKA Moscow have topped the regular season table for the past two years and last time out made it to game seven of the Gagarin Cup final. But Dmitri Kvartalnov’s hopes of making it third time lucky and lifting the Gagarin Cup were hit by the departure of Alexander Radulov and Nikita Zaitsev, two key men.
The head coach admits that it’s impossible to replace players of that calibre and has resisted the temptation to sign big-name players. On defence he’s brought 21-year-old Yury Sergienko back to Moscow after an impressive season at Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod and recruited the more experienced Konstantin Alexeyev from Zaitsev’s first club, Sibir. Up front two Canadians, Bud Holloway and Greg Scott, arrive with plenty of AHL and European experience.